Secretary of Labor Thomas E. Perez

Remarks at the Final Coal Dust Rule Announcement, Morgantown, West Virginia, April 23, 2014

[as prepared for delivery]

Good morning. I can't tell you what an honor it is to be here for this historic announcement.

Dr. Howard, thank you so much for your leadership, for your partnership with us at the Labor Department and the tremendous work by NIOSH over the years that has helped make this day possible. Senator Rockefeller, we're all grateful for your decades of service to this state, for your unrelenting commitment to mine safety, and for your support of this rule specifically.

And I want to thank Assistant Secretary Joe Main and his team at MSHA. Today, it's exactly nine months since I started as Labor Secretary, and there hasn't been a day during those nine months that I haven't benefitted from Joe's remarkable expertise and lifetime of dedication to miners and mine safety.

I want to acknowledge the advocacy groups and representatives of labor and industry whose input helped shape the reforms we are presenting here today. And most of all, I want to thank Carol Miller, Dewey Keiper and Gary Hairston for their courage in coming to share their stories. They represent thousands of men and women — both those suffering from black lung and their families — whose lives have been forever altered by this terrible disease. They are the ones with the greatest stake in this effort. It is in their honor that this new rule was developed.

We're here today to advance a very basic principle: you shouldn't have to sacrifice your life for your livelihood. No one should have to die for a paycheck. And yet, that's been exactly the fate of more than 76,000 miners who have died at least in part because of black lung since 1968. To put that in perspective, throughout most of my lifetime, black lung has contributed to the death of five miners each and every day.

We're here today to say: Enough. We have the tools to do something about this devastating but preventable disease. It's time to muster the will to do it. The nation made a promise to American miners when we passed the Coal Act in 1969 — at long last, we're making good on that promise.

Today's rule will save lives. It will reduce the amount of unhealthy coal dust that miners breathe into their lungs; it will make use of cutting-edge technology to better measure dust levels; it requires mine operators to fix unhealthy dust levels when they find them — not days or weeks later; and it expands the medical surveillance program to improve early detection of black lung.

In developing this rule, we have proceeded with urgency but not with haste. Over the last few years, we have worked hard to engage every segment of the coal community — miners, operators, health professionals, community and labor leaders and more. Our outreach has included seven public hearings and receipt of about 2,000 pages of public comments. The rule also comes with a two-year implementation period during which we will provide support and guidance to coal operators.

Every step of the way, we have done everything possible to bring everyone into the process. I consider it a model of the kind of rulemaking we do at the Department of Labor. Collaboration, openness and listening are essential. Change like this is only successful if all stakeholders actually feel like they hold a stake — if they are invited to pull up a seat at the table and given a chance to be heard.

The final rule reflects careful consideration of — and responsiveness to -- the comments we received. We made important changes from the initial proposed rule, to ensure that we were providing the best protections possible in a way that was still feasible for the industry.

At the end of the day, I believe we can have both healthy miners and a thriving coal industry. No matter what sector of the economy we're talking about, I categorically reject the false choice between job growth and job safety in this country. We can and we must have both.

Every day, thousands of tough, hard-working Americans leave their homes and head to the nation's mines -- many of them descending below the earth's surface — where they take on one of the most difficult jobs imaginable. It's a job most of the rest of the nation knows little about but depends on enormously. It's a job that's more than a job, of course. It's a way of life, woven into the fabric of the community, in many cases a multigenerational legacy.

For everything they do to heat our homes and power our plants and strengthen our economy, the proud people who choose this way of life haven't asked for much. The nation's coal miners simply want the opportunity to support their families, to secure their place in the middle class, to capture a piece of the American Dream. And of course they want to spend their golden years bouncing grandchildren on their knee, not gasping for breath and tethered to an oxygen tank. They know this isn't risk-free work, but all they ask for are basic workplace protections that give them the chance to enjoy continued productivity, decent health and quality of life for years to come.

Today, in a moment that's been a long time coming, we are giving more miners exactly that chance. I am excited to be a part of it, and I look forward to working with all of you to making it a full, lasting reality.